China’s Next Leader Is Missing—and That’s Not Even the Big Story

Dean Cheng / Derek Scissors /

Where is China’s incoming Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping?

When he canceled a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it was attributed to a back injury or perhaps unhappiness with the U.S. But as he has canceled meetings with other visitors, including the Singaporean prime minister, rumors have arisen that something serious is amiss. A serious injury or illness for Xi would be a serious threat to the Party.

What is being overlooked, though, is a threat to the Party that will persist even if Xi is fine. There is a rebirth of politics underway in China, at least at the level of national leadership. The Communist Party was never a monolith, but now it can no longer pretend to be one. Infighting, always present, can no longer be directly or indirectly resolved by a senior figure.

That makes matters such as Xi’s brief absence far more nerve-wracking than it would have been 15 years ago. In a limited but important sense, pluralism has reached the People’s Republic of China.

For most of the first 60 years of its brief history, the PRC saw little in the way of pluralism. During Mao’s three decades of rule, he unilaterally set the course, extending to extreme steps such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. While Deng Xiaoping’s rule was marked by greater reliance on consensus, it was still ultimately dominated by Deng himself. From his perch as “senior leader,” Deng presided over Chinese economic reform, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the political and economic shifts in its wake.

More importantly, Deng dictated the succession of power for not one but two generations. Not only was Jiang Zemin hand-picked by Deng, but so was Hu Jintao. Jiang and Hu enjoyed an authority that could brook no counter. Argument could be halted by “I was picked by Deng Xiaoping.”

With Hu’s departure as general secretary this fall, that era has ended. The Party is now divided into factions and, cutting across those factions, various interest groups such as the internal security apparatus and heavy industry.

With no politician of Mao’s or Deng’s stature to impose order, differences must be negotiated among a large number of groups, with no appeal to higher authority. Pluralism of a limited sort (not to be mistaken for democracy) is inescapable.

Among the many implications, a serious illness or injury for Xi would then be a nightmare scenario for the Party. Fifteen years ago, the next in line, designated by Deng, would step up. In today’s China, a long-term or permanent disappearance by Xi would throw the entire Party into chaos.

Chinese leaders have long warned of the dangers of “splittism.” This is usually taken as cautions against Western pressure encouraging separatism. It would be ironic if, in fact, the Party were confronted instead by internal splits as pluralism rears its head.

What emerging pluralism means for the U.S is that a system that has always been opaque is now becoming complex as well. More than ever, American policymakers should base their decisions on what China actually does rather than parsing the meaning of official declarations or supposed factional maneuvering.